A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

Part 2
THE POLITICS OF
THE AFFLUENT SOCIETY

The 1950s and 1960s are generally seen as very different eras in American history. In our stereotypes of decades, the fifties are the era of conformity, of complacent affluence, a time in which the American people turned away from the challenges of the world, moved to the suburbs, bought refrigerators and televisions and cars with massive tailfins.

There is some truth to this stereotype. Under the leadership of President Eisenhower, the first Republican to be elected in twenty years, the nation seemed remarkable for its stability. While not extending New Deal social welfare programs, neither did the Eisenhower administration attempt to reverse them. Rather, his was an administration of consolidation. Following the Great Depression and World War II, as well as the uncertainty of the immediate postwar years, the 1950s did seem an era of peace, prosperity, and stability— despite the Korean War, the continuing Cold War, McCarthyism, and the growth of a movement for African American civil rights. The 1950s were an age of economic prosperity for most Americans. The percentage of young people attending high school jumped dramatically, as did the number attending college. In a time of low unemployment, rising real wages, and readily available consumer goods, a majority of Americans came to see themselves as middle class. Culturally, as well as politically, the fifties were a time of consolidation.

The sixties, in contrast, are our decade of “great dreams.” They are perhaps our most controversial decade, as America’s politicians and public figures continue to find the roots of all that is good—or bad— about America in the decade of the sixties. When we talk about “The Sixties,” we often mean the latter half of the decade, the years covered in Part 6, “Years of Polarization.” But the activism and grand

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